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Old English declension: Wikis

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Old English nouns were declined – that is, the ending of the noun changed to reflect its function in the sentence. There were five major cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and instrumental case.

  • The nominative case indicated the subject of the sentence, for example se cyning means 'the king'. It was also used for direct address. Adjectives in the predicate (qualifying a noun on the other side of 'to be') were also in the nominative.
  • The accusative case indicated the direct object of the sentence, for example Æþelbald lufode þone cyning means "Æþelbald loved the king", where Æþelbald is the subject and the king is the object. Already the accusative had begun to merge with the nominative; it was never distinguished in the plural, or in a neuter noun.
  • The genitive case indicated possession, for example the þæs cyninges scip is "the ship of the king" or "the king's ship". It also indicated partitive nouns.
  • The dative case indicated the indirect object of the sentence, for example hringas þæm cyninge means "rings for the king" or "rings to the king". There were also several verbs which took direct objects in the dative.
  • The instrumental case indicated an instrument used to achieve something, for example lifde sweorde, "he lived by the sword", where sweorde is the instrumental form of sweord. During the Old English period, the instrumental was falling out of use, having largely merged with the dative. Only pronouns and strong adjectives retained separate forms for the instrumental.

The small body of evidence we have for Runic texts suggests there may also have a been a separate locative case in early or Northumbrian forms of the language (eg. ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁ [on rodi] "on the Cross").[1]

Nouns take different endings depending on whether the noun was in the singular (for example, hring 'one ring') or plural (for example, hringas 'many rings').

Nouns are also categorised by grammatical gender – masculine, feminine, or neuter. Masculine and neuter words generally share their endings. Feminine words have their own subset of endings. The plural of some declension types distinguishes between genders, e.g. a-stem masculine nominative plural stanas "stones" vs. neuter nominative plural scipu "ships" and word "words"; or i-stem masculine nominative plural sige(as) "victories" vs. neuter nominative plural sifu "sieves" and hilt "hilts".

Furthermore, Old English nouns are divided as either strong or weak. Weak nouns have their own endings. In general, weak nouns are easier than strong nouns, since they had begun to lose their declensional system. However, there is a great deal of overlap between the various classes of noun: they are not totally distinct from one another.

Contents

Nouns

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Strong nouns

Here are the strong declensional endings and examples for each gender:

The Strong Noun Declension
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative -as -u/– -u/– -a
Accusative -as -u/– -e -a, -e
Genitive -es -a -es -a -e -a
Dative -e -um -e -um -e -um

For the '-u/–' forms above, the '-u' is used with a root consisting of a single short syllable or ending in a long syllable followed by a short syllable, while roots ending in a long syllable or two short syllables are not inflected. (A long syllable contains a long vowel or is followed by two consonants. Note also that there are some exceptions; for example, feminine nouns ending in -þu such as strengþu 'strength'.)

Example of the Strong Noun Declension for each Gender
Case Masculine
engel 'angel'
Neuter
scip 'ship'
Feminine
sorg 'sorrow'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative engel englas scip scipu sorg sorga
Accusative engel englas scip scipu sorge sorga/sorge
Genitive engles engla scipes scipa sorge sorga
Dative engle englum scipe scipum sorge sorgum

Note the syncope of the second e in engel when an ending follows. This syncope of the vowel in the second syllable occurs with two-syllable strong nouns which have a long vowel in the first syllable and a second syllable consisting of a short vowel and single consonant (for example, engel, wuldor 'glory', and hēafod 'head'). However, this syncope is not always present, so forms such as engelas may be seen.

Weak nouns

Here are the weak declensional endings and examples for each gender:

The Weak Noun Declension
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative -a -an -e -an -e -an
Accusative -an -an -e -an -an -an
Genitive -an -ena -an -ena -an -ena
Dative -an -um -an -um -an -um
Example of the Weak Noun Declension for each Gender
Case Masculine
nama 'name'
Neuter
ēage 'eye'
Feminine
tunge 'tongue'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative nama naman ēage ēagan tunge tungan
Accusative naman naman ēage ēagan tungan tungan
Genitive naman namena ēagan ēagena tungan tungena
Dative naman namum ēagan ēagum tungan tungum

Irregular strong nouns

In addition, masculine and neuter nouns whose main vowel is short 'æ' and end with a single consonant change the vowel to 'a' in the plural:

Dæg 'day' m.
Case Singular Plural
Nominative dæg dagas
Accusative dæg dagas
Genitive dæges daga
Dative dæge dagum

Some masculine and neuter nouns end in -e in their base form. These drop the -e and add normal endings. Note that neuter nouns in -e always have -u in the plural, even with a long vowel:

Example of the Strong Noun Declensions ending in -e
Case Masculine
ende 'end'
Neuter
stȳle 'steel'
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative ende endas stȳle stȳlu
Accusative ende endas stȳle stȳlu
Genitive endes enda stȳles stȳla
Dative ende endum stȳle stȳlum

Nouns ending in -h lose this when an ending is added, and lengthen the vowel in compensation (this can result in compression of the ending as well):

Example of the Strong Noun Declensions ending in -h
Case Masculine
mearh 'horse'
Neuter
feorh 'life'
Masculine
scōh 'shoe'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative mearh mēares feorh feorh scōh scōs
Accusative mearh mēares feorh feorh scōh scōs
Genitive mēares mēara fēores fēora scōs scōna
Dative mēare mēarum fēores fēorum scō scōm

Nouns whose stem ends in -w change this to -u or drop it in the nominative singular. (Note that this '-u/–' distinction depends on syllable weight, as for strong nouns, above.)

Example of the Strong Noun Declensions ending in -w
Case Neuter
smeoru 'grease'
Feminine
sinu 'sinew'
Feminine
lǣs 'pasture'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative smeoru smeoru sinu sinwa lǣs lǣswa
Accusative smeoru smeoru sinwe sinwa, -e lǣswe lǣswa, -e
Genitive smeorwes smeorwa sinwe sinwa lǣswe lǣswa
Dative smeorwe smeorwum sinwe sinwum lǣswe lǣswum

A few nouns follow the -u declension, with an entirely different set of endings. The following examples are both masculine, although feminines also exist, with the same endings (for example duru 'door' and hand 'hand'). Note that the '-u/–' distinction in the singular depends on syllable weight, as for strong nouns, above.

Example of the -u Declension
Case Masculine
sunu 'son'
Masculine
feld 'field'
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative sunu suna feld felda
Accusative sunu suna feld felda
Genitive suna suna felda felda
Dative suna sunum felda feldum

There are also some nouns of the consonant declension, which show i-umlaut in some forms.

Example of the Strong Noun Declensions ending in -w
Case Masculine
fōt 'foot'
Feminine
hnutu 'nut'
Feminine
bōc 'book'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative fōt fēt hnutu hnyte bōc bēc
Accusative fōt fēt hnutu hnyte bōc bēc
Genitive fōtes fōta hnyte, hnute hnuta bēc, bōce bōca
Dative fōte fōtum hnyte, hnute hnutum bēc, bōc bōcum

Other such nouns include (with singular and plural nominative forms given):

Masculine: tōþ, tēþ 'tooth'; mann, menn 'man'; frēond, frīend 'friend'; fēond, fīend 'enemy' (cf. 'fiend')

Feminine: studu, styde 'post' (cf. 'stud'); hnitu, hnite 'nit'; āc, ǣc 'oak'; gāt, gǣt 'goat'; brōc, brēc 'leg covering' (cf. 'breeches'); gōs, gēs 'goose'; burg, byrg 'city' (cf. German cities in -burg); dung, ding 'prison' (cf. 'dungeon' by way of French and Frankish); turf, tyrf 'turf'; grūt, grȳt 'meal' (cf. 'grout'); lūs, lȳs 'louse'; mūs, mȳs 'mouse'; neaht, niht 'night' Feminine with loss of -h in some forms: furh, fyrh 'furrow' or 'fir'; sulh, sylh 'plough'; þrūh, þrȳh 'trough'; wlōh, wlēh 'fringe'. Feminine with compression of endings: , 'cow' (cf. dialectal plural 'kine')

Nouns of relationship

Nouns of Relationship
Case Masculine
fæder 'father'
Masculine
brōðor 'brother'
Feminine
mōdor 'mother'
Feminine
sweostor 'sister'
Feminine
dohtor 'daughter'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative fæder fæd(e)ras brōðor (ge)brōðor mōdor mōdra/mōdru sweostor (ge)sweostor, -tru, -tra dohtor dohtor
Accusative fæder fæd(e)ras brōðor (ge)brōðor mōdor mōdra/mōdru sweostor (ge)sweostor, -tru, -tra dohtor dohtor
Genitive fæder fæd(e)ra brōðor (ge)brōðra mōdor mōdra sweostor (ge)sweostra dohtor dohtra
Dative fæder fæderum brēðer (ge)brōðrum mēder mōdrum sweostor (ge)sweostrum dehter dohtrum

Neuter nouns with -r in plural:

Lamb 'lamb' n.
Case Singular Plural
Nominative lamb lambru
Accusative lamb lambru
Genitive lambes lambra
Dative lambe lambrum

Other such nouns: cealf, cealfru 'calf'; ǣg, ǣru 'egg' (the form 'egg' is a borrowing from Old Norse); cild 'child' has either the normal plural cild or cildru (cf. 'children', with -en from the weak nouns).

Adjectives

Adjectives in Old English are declined using the same categories as nouns: five cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental), three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and two numbers (singular, plural). In addition, they can be declined either strong or weak. The weak forms are used in the presence of a definite or possessive determiner, while the strong ones are used in other situations. The weak forms are identical to those for nouns, while the strong forms use a combination of noun and pronoun endings:

The Strong Adjective Declension
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative -e -u/– -u/– -e, -a
Accusative -ne -e -u/– -e -e, -a
Genitive -es -ra -es -ra -re -ra
Dative -um -um -um -um -re -um
Instrumental -e -um -e -um -re -um

For the '-u/–' forms above, the distinction is the same as for strong nouns.

Example of the Strong Adjective Declension: gōd 'good'
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative gōd gōde gōd gōd gōd gōde, -a
Accusative gōdne gōde gōd gōd gōde gōde, -a
Genitive gōdes gōdra gōdes gōdra gōdre gōdra
Dative gōdum gōdum gōdum gōdum gōdre gōdum
Instrumental gōde gōdum gōde gōdum gōdre gōdum
Example of the Weak Adjective Declension: gōd 'good'
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative gōda gōdan gōde gōdan gōde gōdan
Accusative gōdan gōdan gōde gōdan gōdan gōdan
Genitive gōdan gōdena gōdan gōdena gōdan gōdena
Dative gōdan gōdum gōdan gōdum gōdan gōdum
Instrumental gōdan gōdum gōdan gōdum gōdan gōdum

Note that the same variants described above for nouns also exist for adjectives. The following example shows both the æ/a variation and the -u forms in the feminine singular and neuter plural:

Example of the Strong Adjective Declension: glæd 'glad'
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative glæd glade glæd gladu gladu glade
Accusative glædne glade glæd gladu glade glade
Genitive glades glædra glades glædra glædre glædra
Dative gladum gladum gladum gladum glædre gladum
Instrumental glade gladum glade gladum glædre gladum

The following shows an example of an adjective ending with -h:

Example of the Strong Adjective Declension: hēah 'high'
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative hēah hēa hēah hēa hēa hēa
Accusative hēane hēa hēah hēa hēa hēa
Genitive hēas hēara hēas hēara hēare hēara
Dative hēam hēam hēam hēam hēare hēam
Instrumental hēa hēam hēa hēam hēare hēam

The following shows an example of an adjective ending with -w:

Example of the Strong Adjective Declension: gearu 'ready'
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative gearu gearwe gearu gearu gearu gearwe
Accusative gearone gearwe gearu gearu gearwe gearwe
Genitive gearwes gearora gearwes gearora gearore gearora
Dative gearwum gearwum gearwum gearwum gearore gearwum
Instrumental gearwe gearwum gearwe gearwum gearore gearwum

Determiners

Old English had two main determiners: se, which could function as both 'the' or 'that', and þes for 'this'.

the/that
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative se þæt sēo þā
Accusative þone þæt þā þā
Genitive þæs þæs þǣre þāra, þǣra
Dative þǣm þǣm þǣre þǣm, þām
Instrumental þȳ, þon þȳ, þon

Modern English 'that' descends from the neuter nominative/accusative form, and 'the' from the masculine nominative form, with 's' replaced analogously by the 'th' of the other forms. The feminine nominative form was probably the source of Modern English 'she.'

this
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative þes þis þēos þās
Accusative þisne þis þās þās
Genitive þisses þisses þisse, þisre þisra
Dative þissum þissum þisse, þisre þissum
Instrumental þȳs þȳs

See also

External links

References

  1. ^ Page, An Introduction to English Runes, Boydell 1999, p. 230

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